Academics evaluating experimental mock jury trials in the UK have said virtual trials with physical jury hubs could be an effective way of clearing the significant backlog of court cases caused by COVID-19, according to a report in the UK Gazette.
Law reform group Justice has been conducting mock jury trials since April to see if it is possible to hold virtual trials that meet the principles of fairness, accuracy of evidence and certainty during the pandemic.
In the first two trials, participants were in separate locations. In the third trial, the jury remained dispersed.
In the final trial, jurors were assembled together in a physical ‘jury hub’ and the other participants appeared remotely. The defendant appeared via a video link from prison.
An evaluation report published yesterday (18 June) says the most serious concerns raised by participants in the first three trials related to IT problems and internet connectivity.
Participants in the fourth trial considered the creation of a physical justice hub a success and it dealt with many issues that arose in the earlier experiments.
The hub was a South London facility which had a reception area, large hall with lots of natural light, kitchen and three unisex toilets.
Each juror had two screens on their socially distanced desks, one for viewing the virtual courtroom and the other for viewing trial documents. A four-strong technical team were on site in a separate room.
The report says the physical hub gave control of technology back to the organisers. Good quality equipment was guaranteed.
The need for jurors to operate new systems and solve technological problems remotely were removed. The connection from the hub to the virtual courtroom did not fail.
Participants noticed that the jury was ‘very engaged’ with the case – taking notes, asking pertinent questions and asking for more evidence.
The report says: “The fourth virtual trial with a physical jury hub was widely considered across the team to be the most successful of the four experiments. In particular, there were far fewer technical problems, all of the responsibilities of jurors regarding technical provision were removed and everyone seemed engaged in the proceedings.”
Jury trials in England and Wales were paused at the start of lockdown but are slowly returning as more court buildings are opened.
However, this week the lord chief justice said ministers should consider limiting the availability of jury trials if court delays become unmanageable.
The criminal justice system is currently facing a backlog of more than 40,000 cases.